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Why Remote Work is Not Here to Stay at Courier

Aman Kandola

September 16, 2021

We all spent a year getting used to remote work; now, the big question is how do we transition back to the in-person work pattern in a new world with Covid-19? Or should we transition back at all? In a study of workers by Buffer (both pre-pandemic remote workers and workers who became remote during the pandemic), 97.6% confirmed they would like to continue working remotely at least some of the time.

The two most significant benefits for these remote workers were the flexible schedule (32%) and the ability to work anywhere (25%). However, aside from the benefits, they also expressed their two biggest struggles as “not being able to unplug” and “difficulties with communication and collaboration.”

Courier was founded in April 2019. Although that was only a couple of years ago, the way people work has changed dramatically since then. Until March 2020, we operated under the same assumption that almost all of America had operated on: we’d get an office, and people would come into the office pretty much every day. Since then, we’ve gone on a journey that’s ended at the destination of a hybrid-remote approach to work—and here’s how we got there.

We Appreciate the Benefits of Remote Work

Generally, remote work gives employees the freedom to plan and organize their schedules to suit both their work and personal lives. It also increases the level of productivity and employee retention. A Gartner study showed that 43% of workers stated their higher productivity levels came from flexible work hours.

We think of ourselves as an innovative company. But we weren't set up to work remotely, so we found ourselves scrambling to adjust to being remote. Some things were easy—our product is software, so nothing stopped our engineers from building or our customers from using our API. Other things weren't. For instance, we rebuilt our onboarding process for new users earlier this year, but virtual whiteboard sessions were noticeably slower, less productive, and less imaginative compared to how the same sessions went after coming back to the office.

Over time, we made many changes to account for the remote nature of our work, and we noticed many improvements. For one, remote work increased the visibility of our communication. We shifted our communication on Slack to center around public channels instead of direct messages to increase visibility. We also simplified our meeting structure to spend less time in meetings and instead communicated information asynchronously via Google Docs or Notion docs when possible. As a result, the average efficiency of every meeting has gone up, so we've been more selective about which meetings we have and which ones we cancel.

We also found ways to spend time together virtually since we couldn't hang out in person (if you haven't done a virtual escape room, we'd highly recommend it!). Remote work also helped us better acknowledge employee contributions. For example, we made copious use of a Slackbot called HeyTaco to celebrate our progress and recognize everyone for their achievements.

We Built Our Company Culture Around Face-to-Face Interactions

The culture at Courier had been built around collaborating face-to-face because we believe that working in the same office is more conducive to speedy execution and decision-making, and collaboration for an early-stage startup. So getting on the same page when we transitioned to working remotely was difficult and inefficient. This challenge only increased as we expanded beyond being an engineering organization and added team members in customer success and marketing.

When you’re a small startup, part of your edge is the ability to organize rapidly, iterate on experiments quickly, and naturally build a strong team ethos. These become logistically challenging to create as a company grows larger. And these deficiencies can be more glaring in a remote-only setting.

First, remote work has yet to replicate the kind of high-bandwidth collaboration an in-person meeting naturally creates. Sure, not all meetings need to exist, and there are a plethora of productivity tools that simulate in-person collaboration. Still, we haven’t found any of them to equal the experience of gathering around a whiteboard and physically writing out a workflow or drawing a mockup.

Part of what we’ve found lacking is convenience and ease of use. The missing piece here is that non-verbal communication is effectively non-existent when working remotely and the natural spontaneity that occurs during in-person meetings is absent over Zoom. In practice, you can notice when your colleague seems a little puzzled in a face-to-face meeting, and you can ask them where they disagree or what they think. It’s easier to miss that over Zoom unless someone vocalizes their thoughts.

Sometimes, people don’t want to ruin the conversation flow with a tangential idea. However, there’s an opportunity for a teammate to engage via a sidebar to the primary conversation when you’re in-person so you can still explore the tangent without disturbing the broader meeting. These things seem trivial, but, particularly during the more creative parts of development, they have a significant impact.

The other loss from working remotely is unplanned conversations, particularly those among members of different teams. At a company level, this blocks information flow across teams and reduces collaboration. It makes it harder to learn about how the rest of the business functions at an individual level. It’s one thing for an engineer to read a Google Doc laying out the plan for a marketing campaign after a series of planning meetings among the growth team. It’s another thing to catch the postscript of a meeting at lunch and throw some ideas out that help improve alignment between the product roadmap and growth plans.

These impromptu discussions lead to a better outcome for both teams, but it also gives everyone involved some insight into their counterpart’s workflow, which they may not have gotten otherwise. Because of the unprecedented speed at which venture-backed startups are expected to execute, building context across the entire business can help you come up with ideas, prioritize your own, and provide a useful perspective on new initiatives.

If you’re a younger member of the working world, in-person meetings with your colleagues are even more valuable. You’re even more likely to hesitate to interrupt people in Zoom to ask basic questions and will find it more challenging to pick up business context remotely than you would by simply observing your colleagues in the office.

Lastly, in our opinion, in-person work is more conducive to building great work relationships and, ultimately, making the startup journey more fun. Of course, being in person is not a requirement for getting to know someone, and getting to know someone is not required to get work done with someone. But for people who enjoy getting to know their colleagues and feed off the energy of being in a building full of people working toward the same goal, working in a remote-only environment can be less stimulating and more taxing mentally.

A Hybrid Approach Blends the Best of Both Worlds

Unlike many similar organizations, we don’t intend to become a fully remote workplace. Instead, we believe the best way forward for us is to adopt a hybrid approach.

A hybrid approach for Courier means we have an office, the team will generally be expected to come in one to two days a week, and planning happens on those days. The rest of the week is for working on assignments remotely. And since we’ve invested in making remote work viable for us, if we happen to be traveling, we can work remotely during our trip (or take time off, of course). For example, our VP of Growth, Nick Gottlieb spent two months working from Montana. Raymond See, our Head of Data, spent a month in Hawaii, and I frequently visited my family in New York.

At Courier, we’ve continued hiring folks exclusively in the Bay Area. We’ve even had team members move here from other parts of the country because they wanted to be part of a team that meets in person every week. I moved here from New York before the pandemic, Tejas Kumthekar, an engineer, moved here earlier this year from Chicago, and Andrew Youngwerth, another engineer, just moved here from Boise, Idaho.

Having the freedom to work in the office has given me the feeling of wanting to go somewhere again. Synchronized work in a safe space brings a sense of community that I look forward to each day.

Micah Zayner, Sr. Growth Marketing Manager at Courier

Consider many factors — like your organization's norms and culture — before choosing your approach to a model that works for your company. While you can learn from our model, you have many other options. Check out McKinsey’s study on how you can effectively choose a model and reimagine your post-pandemic workforce.

Finally, we encourage you to be open about this with your team and start the conversation as soon as possible. That way, your company’s employees aren’t wondering and won’t get anxious about what the post-pandemic work pattern will be.

Further reading: Making Hybrid Work more permanent, set some ground rules

Results So Far From our Hybrid Approach to Work at Courier

We started this hybrid approach work pattern in May 2021, and so far, we’ve seen a good turnaround in our creativity. Here are some significant achievements:

  • Since our team has grown throughout the pandemic, we had physical meetings to brainstorm ideas, refocus our mission statement, and figure out core team values.
  • We’ve run multiple cross-functional growth experiments and have iterated multiple times on different flows in the product (by contrast, the product development lifecycle during the pandemic was full releases with minimal design iteration involved).
  • We’ve also had countless examples of unplanned conversations leading to great outcomes for the product and business—we decided to change our pricing when Nick overheard a conversation Troy, our CEO, and I were having. We were talking about some customer feedback around the complexity of our pricing, and he suggested we offer customers simple per-message pricing. Another instance was when Suhas, an engineer on our team, overheard a conversation Seth Carney, our CTO, and I were having on notifying customers about their billing status. He suggested that we find a way to use our own product for these kinds of notifications, which made too much sense not to do. We’ve since continued expanding our usage of our own product inspired by his offhand comment.

For me, I feel like my time in the office during collaborative activities is energizing and inspiring and allows me to form meaningful in-person relationships. Yet as an engineer I also highly value distraction-free focus time, which for me is best done in my home office. This balance has made Courier a really enjoyable and energizing place to work.

Chris Gradwohl, Engineer at Courier

While some companies may never return to the office again, Courier believes taking a hybrid approach retains many advantages of a remote-only organization while adding back significant aspects of in-person working. If you’re interested in our work environment, we have some open roles on our careers page.

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